Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Finding Equality

I'm not bragging, although I may be biased when I say this: my son is very intelligent. He's really sharp and he catches on to new concepts very quickly. He's kind-hearted and respectful and inquisitive.

For the last two years, my son has had a girl in his class who has some special needs. He asks me questions about her, questions that I can't answer because I don't know this girl (I'll call her Allison). I don't know what Allison's disabilities are, but I do know that Allison has modifications made for her in class, modifications that help her maximize her educational opportunities.

But how do I respond when my son asks, "Mom, we did a worksheet in class today. Everyone had to do 40 math questions by the end of class but Allison only had to do 6. Why? That's just not fair."

And, "Mom, today in class, we were having a novel discussion. We all know the rules about raising our hands and waiting to be called on, but Allison just blurts out the answers. But she doesn't get in trouble and she doesn't get a card turn from green to yellow."

I have tried to respond by explaining that Allison has some difficulties in class and the teachers are just trying to make the class a better place for Allison to learn. I told him, if you have more questions we can have a meeting with the teacher to see if she has a better explanation. But no, my son didn't want to do that. I told him he could talk to the teacher privately (so as not to embarrass Allison).

Later, my son told me that he did ask the teacher, and the teacher responded, "Well, Allison needs some extra help." My son just can't wrap his head around that. He sees this situation as completely unfair, especially since he is also in a special program at school: the Gifted & Talented program. But his participation in that program doesn't allow for work to be minimized; if anything, he's expected to do all his classwork PLUS extra work for G/T. To him, he doesn't see this as an opportunity; he sees it as a punishment. And that punishment is only multiplied when he sees Allison getting to avoid consequences for her behavior and also do less work than is expected for the rest of the class.

My son can't and wouldn't understand the big picture: that the older he gets, the more he'll see the imbalance of his abilities to those of others and that he will actually be the one in the better position; that later in life he will have an easier time getting and holding down a job; that once he gets just a few years older, the taunting and ridicule of peers will open his eyes to how much he DOESN'T want to be in Allison's shoes. Of course he can't understand. He will one day, but until then, how do I explain this to my son?

I want him to be empathetic to Allison but not pity her. I want him to be inquisitive about the inequality he sees in his world, but also open to understanding how inequality can sometimes be the solution, not the problem. I want him to raise questions and it is painful to me when I can't give him answers that satisfy his curiosity.

Sometimes I find that there are just no answers to a question. Why did that baby in your tummy die? Why won't Eric call me back to play? Why can't I run fast like my brother? Not that I expect to always be able to give my son an answer, but the look on his face... in his eyes... searching for knowledge, wanting to understand, that look that says, "It doesn't make sense and I really really want it to!"... it makes my heart ache.

I don't know what Allison has ahead for her. She will probably continue on in school, eventually being placed in some special needs classes in high school, and earning her high school degree. By that time, I'm sure my son will long since have forgotten how unfair this past school year has felt to him. But the time to teach him skills like empathy and perseverance are now. I just don't know what to say to him.

Have you ever dealt with anything like this? How did you respond to your child?

And please, if you are the mom of a special needs child, please do not take what I'm saying as anything more than an honest self-reflection on a topic of which I have absolutely no knowledge. I have no kids that suffer from any type of learning disabilities, so I admit I am in the dark on this subject. But I am willing to learn and to help my son learn as well.

Texan Mama


Bridgett said...

Well, I'm the mother, as you know, of a 4th grader with severe dyslexia, and when I say "dyslexia" I don't mean "slow reader with poor skills". I mean "the words jump around the page and she tries to hold them down with her finger." Dyslexia, though, in comparison to other disorders, comes with so many amazing advantages along with the disadvantages that I'm probably not the reader to become the spokesperson for this.

But I'll say this, as a former teacher of middle school math, and before that, of first grade whole-curriculum. When students--usually not the "gifted" ones in my classes, because they were too busy doing other things to even notice the lowest achievers, since I ran my first grade classroom on an individual education plan for EVERY STUDENT, and my older grade math classes were divided by ability already, but usually above-average kids who did well with little effort--when students complained because someone had less to do than they did, I started by pointing out that "fair" does not mean "equal." And that usually was the end of the conversation for the older students. Like I said, the younger students were all on different pages so it was harder to tell what was going on.

I never had a student who had such dire needs that were so obvious--except my first year, but ALL my kids had dire needs that year. Most of the time the differences were accommodations only (Rachel got to sit in the front of the room in the front center desk; Taylor had a recorder to keep notes with, and so forth), and the unfairness of the situation was dispelled quickly. When I did have more going on than something so obvious and simple, I tried to make the accommodation available to the whole class (as Sophia's class does, frankly, with books on tape for every literature group, no note taking from a board, and so forth). And in the few cases that I thought would strike kids (first graders) as most unfair, ones I could not make available to a whole class, well, I tried to make them as invisible as possible.

What a shame that his teacher hasn't done the same. Also what a shame that she's teaching math as a whole-class effort instead of allowing students a more individualized fluid approach. I don't know what grade he's in, but unless he's taking high school courses like Algebra I (in which case Allison probably wouldn't even be in that course!), there's no reason for the whole class to have 40 problems and Allison have 6. How mortifying for Allison. How frustrating for everyone else. I ALWAYS treated homework at the middle school level (when I say middle school, I mean that I worked in a Catholic K-8 and I had 4th through 8th grade math) as practice for the test. You did what you had to do to understand what you were doing. But I have a feeling, based on other things you've said about your school, that this would be met with chaos based on the school's culture.

The problem isn't with you, it isn't with your son, and it isn't with Allison. It's with a school culture that is rigid and ungraceful. The fault also lies with bad teaching. She may be lovely but she's been trained badly or is lazy if she can't disguise things with better finesse than "well Allison needs some extra help." What a cop out.

But since you can't fix that...have you considered Acts 2:45? Each according to his need? They were talking about material goods and such, but you could start a reflection with him on the idea of community and how different members have different strengths and these strengths are pulled together to make a cohesive unit.

Or you could do what my mother did for me, as a "gifted and talented" kid who skipped 1st grade and still was ahead of her class academically: she didn't make me do the G/T program. I was allowed some time to cruise and not be tapped out to the point of frustration.

Ellen Stewart (aka Ellie/El/e/Mrs. Seaman) said...

Gifted programs are often just more work. It's a shame.

I'm surprised your son struggles with this. In our school there is at least one special needs child in each grade level, so by fourth grade, the grade I teach they get it.

Be blunt with your son. Tell him you don't know her issues/label, but try though she might (and it might not seem like she is trying), she cannot meet the same expectations as everyone else. Suggest you pray for her.

There's a great new book out, a kids' novel written from the perspective of a girl with autism. Great stuff. Something like that may help your son.

What I tell my kids, meaning my students, is we all have strengths and weaknesses. Some of us run fast, some of us a stronger readers, some of us can draw, some of us are funnier...sometimes those talents change...but we all have gifts, we just have to find them.

The teacher simply can't talk about Allison with your son. That would be like a doctor talking to a patient about the guy who just left the office. However, I have, as a group, talked with kids about how to work best with such kids. (So I guess I just contradicted my statement.) I did so with parental permission, certain parents want their kids' peers to know...

Rambling here, I hope I've made some kind of point.

Don E. Chute said...

Wow, a great post on a difficult question, two excellent comments on the subject.

I couldn't possibly add to the discourse.

May God bless and watch over all of his children.


Jennifer said...

I just tell my kids that God makes us all different. Some of us have an easier time with stuff and some of us have a harder time. She may get to do less work at school, but she has other areas in life that are harder for her. We all have different talents and skills. That's what makes us special.

I would tell him one of the reasons he goes to school is to learn to be smarter. Because he is already smart he has to work a little harder to learn more than some kids that aren't as smart as him.

Try to get him to figure it out. Ask a question like, "she only has to answer six problems, but what do you get to do that is easier than it is for her?" It may be art or PE or music or computer or whatever. Maybe if he can come up with the answer he'll start to see the balance.

Joanna said...

Smart children always want a real answer. I was G/T myself, and I could always tell when someone was trying to gloss over a subject.

My best advice would be to explain to him that, like the above poster said, every one is different and while he is at a higher learning level, this little girl is having a lot of difficulty.

I would let him know that in some schools, they can have different classes for kids of different levels, but that at his school, the teacher needs to teach some students in ways they can understand better.

You might also want to look at the library for some books that he can look at on learning disabilities. The more information a gifted child can have and process, the more understanding they can be of the situation.